The reading ends in mid-verse. Pearl's demeanor shifts, and she springs up from the bed. She lays the blue pullover carefully across the bed, arms spread wide.
Relics. Photographs, letters, voicemails, birthday cards. Manila folder tabs. Pencil lines spidering across miniature lined notebooks.
When my father was dying, I was afraid he wouldn't leave enough relics. I recorded our conversations, and his conversations with visitors, and one side of his phone conversations. I recorded him reading his favorite poems: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Walrus and the Carpenter," and "The Old Sailor."
Dad spent the last months of his life revisiting the relics he had kept for decades: photographs of his beloved Aunt Gert, letters from his first girlfriend, Nancy Behr, books, movies and TV shows he treasured.
Today, nearly a year after his death, I locate Dad in relics. When I hear his voice reading a poem, or read a letter he wrote to his brother in the '70s, his inflections and sentence structures become more firmly lodged in my memory, replacing the time we spent together with a document of time together. Each relic begins to gather its own dust.
Last fall I invented Stand-up Tragedy. I was unable to focus on work, so I started to wonder if I could make money from what I did easiest: crying. In Stand-Up Tragedy, those people who can't cry, those who marvel at how easily I can cry, might benefit from watching me cry. Or by crying themselves. So I had to decide: Would I tell the stories that made me cry or made the audience cry?
While I was working this out, I practiced by going home from a day with Dad and telling my son the saddest things I'd heard that day.
PEARL returns to the bed and sits on the edge. As she becomes STEVE, she retakes his posture.
How long were you and Mom separated?
Let's say April.
And Amanda, who was two, sometimes stood at the window and said, "Daddy, come home." Which had a, a profound effect on me. I was in the car. Driving, about to drive off. She doesn't know when it was. She doesn't remember it.
This relic belongs to my sister, Amanda. She may remember it or she may not, but no one alive remembers the funeral of Pearl Klein, my father's mother, my namesake. We asked,
Do you remember anything about your mother's funeral?
Of course. I mean, one thing: Aunt Gert broke down and leaned on her tombstone and cried, and my sister Laura com-for-ted her.
Something similar occurred at my father's father's funeral:
My stepmother Anne was crying, and Tante Rose told her not to cry, and, I thought that Anne should be given the freedom to cry. And I don't know, I don't know whether I defended her or, you know, or stuck up for her.
(responding to a question)
Becauss it wasn't dignified.
Pearl rises from the bed and returns fully to her own embodiment.
Now that Dad is dead, I decide for him what he would or wouldn't want. Dad wouldn't want me to cry over money. Dad would want me to read his letters. Dad wants me to be happy when I think of him. The truth is, how the hell do I know? I'm looking for answers in the conversations I recorded with him, recordings which share a quality of photographs: What is recorded narrows down what is remembered, moments that endure while unrecorded moments dissipate.
The unrecorded moments dissipate. That's why I used to prefer movies over live performance. You could see the same thing again and again, and while your memory might shift, the images and sounds would maintain integrity. But you can't see the same thing twice, whether looking at a recording or not. The thing you see is different when you see it a second time. Except when you have dementia. Dementia makes everything old new again.
Dad is dead. I still have a lot of important questions. Though as Dad would say when he declared a question important, "Why is it important?"
Pearl moves back to the bed and takes Steve's position.
So, we, we're, we're uh trying to date things. '52, ah. Now, don't forget to note it's an American Airlines DC-6, uh, direct to LaGuardia, with stops in... hah... at Dallas-Ft. Worth and Cincinnati.
Some questions can be answered through research. "Where did the DC-6 to Long Beach refuel?" or "What's the address of the Hebrew Home and Hospital for the Chronic Ill?" These things are in the historical record. Somewhere. Somebody else can remember them.
Dad and I talked about who would "actually" know and about who can tell you the truth and about fact-checking, but, the truth is, to me, what's true is that in the story of our lives, the perception is really significant.
Ah, I was talking about that to Nancy Behr! In 1957. About the photogra - ph-photographs. I told her that, it wasn't necessary to take uh, photographs. Don't, you don't take photographs for documentation, you take photographs for art.
Pearl lies on her stomach as a teenaged Nancy Behr.
As soon as I wrote you about the taking of pictures, I convinced myself that you were all wrong. I brought my camera the next day but I did not have a chance to take any pictures. But I will.
Pearl returns to her feet, addresses the audience.
I have Nancy Behr's letters and I have a recording of me reading the letters to Dad; he recalled this argument -- "you were all wrong" -- from when he was a teenager. Instead of a relic, we only have the reconstruction of the conversation that was obsessing Dad, not the letter Nancy received from him. But I know Dad's philosophy of photography: Once you frame a moment in words or images, the pieces left outside of the frame tend to disappear, or at least become less bright and clear, fading as the image replaces them.
Dad took photos of his kids as a way of engaging with us. He saw his photographs as collaborations between himself and the subjects. I am still collaborating with him. I am capturing pieces of him in the frame, and soon the pieces will become Dad and Dad will be in pieces.
And committing myself to paper makes that come sooner, though it also acts as a fixative on the images I do have. If I commit everything I remember to the page or perform it here for you, then Dad will live. Once I commit everything I remember to the page or the stage, Dad will only live there, and in that way.
And I will be responsible.
And the responsibility paralyzes me.
And no matter my responsibility, Dad will always be dead. And Dad will always live.